July 27, 2009

"Gay Churches" Filling Up With Straight People

That's the interesting conclusion of a recent USA Today article:

Denver Schimming, 51, and his wife Sheila Hobson, 48, were in the market for a liberal-minded church in Nashville — "the buckle of the Bible Belt," he says — and knew they found something different at Holy Trinity Community Church, where 90% of its 350 members are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (GLBT).

"I laugh and say we're the token straight couple, but I kid you not, they treat us like royalty," said Hobson. "They are so loving and giving."

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others once called 11:00 on Sunday morning the most segregated hour in Christian America; indeed, sexual orientation can be just as divisive. Just as churches were split into white and black, they have also split between gay and straight.

Alternative faith communities that cater to GLBT believers, such as Holy Trinity and Bet Mishpachah, were an outgrowth of the gay rights movement that took root 40 years ago. "Inclusion" is the buzzword for many of these congregations.

Rabbi Toby Manewith, a straight woman who was recently installed as Bet Mishpachah's new rabbi, said the radical welcome grows out of "members' experience of being on the outside."

"Everyone who comes here, no matter their sexual or gender identity, religious affiliation or knowledge, everyone is welcomed with open arms," said Manewith, 43. "You'd hope that would happen in all religious communities, but the truth is it's not an easy thing to put into practice."

Some straight believers attend out of a sense of solidarity or social justice. Others wandered in by accident, or were invited by a gay friend or family member, and simply felt at home and decided to stay.
Even with the support, being the straight sheep in a gay flock is not without its predictable oddities. Ivan Zimmerman, 51, remembers congregants assuming he was gay during his early days at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a renowned predominantly gay 700-member synagogue in New York City.

"I would joke and say I've come to terms with my heterosexuality," Zimmerman said.

While gay congregations crave growth and vitality, some wonder if an influx of heterosexuals might change the character of faith communities that were formed to minister to minorities.

The Rev. Nancy Wilson, the moderator of the MCC, says her churches aren't going out of business anytime soon, but life might get more complex.

"Who connects to and relates to this ministry is much more complicated than it would have been in the early '70s, when it was mostly gay men, and white gay men at that," she said.

Still, at the end of the day, a community of faith is more than labels.

Many denominations and their churches love placing labels on people, but the churches that are pressing in closest to the Lord don't waste their time with that-they simply reach out their arms and welcome everyone, just like Believers Covenant Fellowship did when a straight guy (Jim) wandered into their church several years ago.

Click here to read the rest of the USA Today article.

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